World Naval Developments in Review

By Norman Friedman

Some Damn Thing in the Balkans

The former Yugoslavia is bubbling again. Now that the Serbians have, at least in theory, agreed to abandon their way in Bosnia, they have turned south to their province of Kosovo. Kosovo is now 90% ethnic Albanian, i.e., Moslem, but it is dominated by Serbs who are Orthodox Christians. For years, the Albanians have agitated, mainly peacefully, for some form of local autonomy. In February, Serbian police sweeps seeking supposed Albanian insurgents turned nasty and there were massacres. The U.S. government had urged the Serbs to desist. If, as most expect, they do not, the U.S. government wants its European partners in the former Yugoslavia to join in imposing sanctions.

This fairly arcane news matters because, far more than Bosnia, Kosovo had the potential to ignite a major South European war. First, the Serbs are unlikely to desist. Their ruler, Slobodan Mihailovich, built his political career on Serbian nationalism. Kosovo was the center of the medieval Serbian state, where the Christian Serbs were defeated by the Moslems in 1348-in nationalist terms, far too recently to forget. Mihailovich made his first important political speech in 1987 from the battlefield on which the old Serbian state died, promising that Serbia would never again retreat. That the emotional heart of Serbia is now 90% Moslem is clearly a stain that true nationalists want to remove. Ethnic cleansing of this scale is conceivable, however horrific it is likely to be. Albania itself lies just across the border from Kosovo and presumably the Serbian goal, as yet unexpressed, is to drive the ethnic Albanians across.

That land border is the second important point. When Serbians massacred Moslems in Bosnia, the Moslem world by and large had to watch in horror. None of its armies could easily intervene by land, but the NATO seaborne embargo was quite effective. Arms and a few fighters were smuggled in, but nothing more. Albania itself is virtually powerless; it hardly has an effective government, let alone the sort of army that could challenge Serbia's. Clearly, however, it can be used as a gateway into (or out of) Kosovo. Large-scale foreign intervention is quite possible this time. The nearby Moslem country of Turkey has a large and quite competent army.

The third factor is Turkish internal and external politics. Turkey is nominally a secular country, but it has a large and vocal fundamentalist Moslem party. The Turkish government might find it difficult to face that party while idly watching terrible scenes in accessible Kosovo. Pressure might be particularly heavy because the Turkish government is working closely with Israel (hence may feel it must reaffirm its Moslem credentials) and it has been criticized in the Moslem world for its attacks on Kurds in Eastern Turkey. Finally, Turkey competes with Iran for influence in the countries that formerly constituted Soviet Central Asia—some of which potentially are very important for their natural resources. Again, the Turkish government may very badly want to show how much it cares about Moslems under threat.

That the European Union recently has rejected Turkish overtures for membership also is likely to figure in this equation. Some of the Europeans went so far as to say that because it was not a Christian country, Turkey could not be accepted as European. At the least, the Turkish government was told that applications from the ex-communist countries of Central Europe will be considered first. Turks are likely to see European acceptance of Serbian atrocities in both Bosnia and, now, in Kosovo as proof of pervasive antiMoslem sentiment (which also is reflected by the treatment of Turkish guest workers in Germany and of Algerians in France). They may see intervention in Kosovo as a very reasonable reply.

This would be of little moment without the presence of Greece—yet another factor. The Greeks generally have sympathized with the Serbs. Given their hatred of the Turks, they probably would be happy to become involved in a Turkish-Serbian war. Greece and Turkey already have come close to war several times over Cyprus. It seems likely that combat in and around Kosovo would touch off something bigger and nastier in the whole region.

Even the Italians might find themselves involved, probably most reluctantly. As the Albanian government disintegrated, the Italians found themselves facing hordes of refugees sailing across the narrow part of the Adriatic Sea. Eventually they had to put troops into Albanian ports, simply to stem that tide and to establish some limited order. Clearly, they have no intention of staying. Anyone trying to use Albania as a beachhead into Kosovo, however, might have to turn the Italian troops aside.

Thus far, the U.S. government has condemned the atrocities in Kosovo, but has not explained to the American public that the stakes are much higher than in Bosnia. Generally, the warning is that an ethnic war touched off in Kosovo might spill over to neighboring countries with Albanian minorities, such as the small state of Macedonia. In theory, the larger war is being headed off; but the Greeks and Turks will become more difficult to keep in check as the situation worsens.

Two problems block U.S. action. Kosovo is part of Serbia, an independent state, and diplomats are reluctant to interfere in a nation's internal policies, no matter how repulsive, for fear of creating precedents that will eventually skewer their own governments. Talk is one thing, but action is much more difficult. During the Cold War, governments of both sides, both nominally and sometimes more actively, tried to overthrow each other, but that was part of a major (if slow-moving) international conflict. Now that the Cold War is over, it is much more difficult to explain active interference in another country's internal affairs.

That is partly because of the second problem: the United States, acting alone, lacks the leverage to affect the Serbians. It is not altogether clear that any sanctions short of armed force would have much effect. Even so, our attempts at action will probably have to be coordinated with the members of a "contact group" concerned with the former Yugoslavia; the others are Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and Russia. In the long fight in Bosnia, Britain and France supplied most of the troops and many of the aircraft; Italy furnished air bases.

In any showdown with the Serbs, Britain is likely to side with the United States. Historically, France has sought ties to Serbia, which it considers its main Central European partner. For some time, moreover, the French government has chafed at international policies it believes the United States has tried to impose, as in Iraq. Russia has much closer historical ties to Serbia, and many Russians have a historically-rooted antagonism for Turkey and for Moslems. The Russian government is relatively weak, and to a considerable extent it must prove its independence from the West. The Russian official reaction to Western imposed punishment of Serbia might seem to many Russians a valid test of that independence.

The Russians might even believe that they had to help the Serbs if the current crisis blossomed into war. On the other hand, the Russians may be the only ones with much leverage in Serbia.

World War I began with an assassin's shot in Bosnia. Yugoslavia featured prominently in the build-up to World War II. It would be terrible if, pursuing parochial interests, the major powers allowed the current low-key disaster to escalate to something engulfing southern Europe—but that is possible.

For now, it also seems possible that the contact group will support an arms embargo against Serbia. That would be almost ludicrous; Serbia has a home arms industry, and the police in Kosovo have no need of foreign-supplied weapons. The next step is bombing. The problem, as always, is that there are likely to be few if any appropriate targets. It is by no means clear that bombing, which is a very blunt instrument, has much adverse effect on an enemy government. Usually it cements support for the regime. It may make life much less pleasant for the population, but in that case attacks on Serbia would likely make it even worse for the Albanians in Kosovo, who would be the natural target for Serbian resentment.

Ground troops are the most likely option. If the objective in Kosovo is to stop an ethnic war and, perhaps, to take over control from Serbian police and troops, then we are looking at a long-term ground commitment. That may well be worthwhile, if the alternative is a horrific ground war involving U.S. allies, and probably tearing NATO apart. This is probably the right time to begin thinking seriously about such possibilities.

It may also be the right time to think more seriously about the direction of current U.S. military development. Kosovo may turn out to be a fairly common sort of U.S. military function; the big war for which we plan may be rather more distant. Over the next few decades, U.S. troops may well discover that they are most often employed—and most at risk—in the disturbed areas on the fringe of the former Soviet empire. Yugoslavia, after all, remained stable until the Soviet Union, and the old threat to its independence, dissipated.

Much of the current U.S. military development effort is focused on Vision 2010 and the Revolution in Military Affairs—in essence, on the belief that better acquisition and distribution of information (and very precise weapons) can make up for drastically reduced numbers. That may make sense in a big, conventional war. In a place like Kosovo—or Bosnia—where troops are used mainly to keep down the level of violence, there is no substitute for numbers. We may be selling ourselves a fantasy—which is in any case vulnerable to an enemy using countermeasures intelligently. 


Norman Friedman is a prominent naval analyst and the author of more than thirty books covering a range of naval subjects, from warship histories to contemporary defense issues. He is a longtime columnist for Proceedings magazine and lives in New York City.

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